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SOUTHERN ETHIOPIA ROAD TRIP:
DAY 4: Bull Jumping Ceremony

On this day we got some fabulous news – there was going to be a bull jumping ceremony, and we would be able to attend, as long as we were willing to give a financial donation to the family. Dave and I leaped at the chance, especially when we learned that the deal would include unlimited photography of the entire celebration. Now, we would finally be able to get those natural photo shots we had been yearning for, with entire Hamar tribal clans decked out in their authentic attire. With everything arranged, we would be welcome guests at this spectacular and rare ceremony.

Bull jumping is a once-in-a-lifetime event in a Hamar man’s life. If he is successful, and he jumps the bulls properly, then his success indicates to the tribal elders that he is a full-grown man, and he is ready to marry and to take his place in society. If he fails to leap over the bulls three times, he is shamed before the tribe. He is taken by the women into the forest to be whipped, and he must wait for months before he tries again.

The ceremony itself is all about the man, but the unsung heroes of the family are the women. In my opinion, their role requires more bravery than the man’s; and it made the man’s jumping skills seem almost easy by comparison. The feats of courage that the ladies demonstrated were literally breathtaking. I will never forget what I saw that day, and I will never forget the Hamer women.

First of all, I have to describe them. They were gorgeous in their own way, not because they were sexy, but because they were strong, and their strength shone on their beautiful faces. These women all had the bodies of hardcore athletes. Their muscles flexed like bodybuilders, and their calves and thighs were shapely and rock hard from all the walking and the hard daily work they had to do. They all sported the traditional Hamer hairstyle: tight braids covered in a reddish ochre mud. (This sounds unattractive, but it really looked pretty cool). Their costumes were also incredible. Each woman wore handmade skirts of intricately beaded cowhide. The married ones wore side-slit skirts that covered their inner thighs and backsides. The unmarried girls’ skirts were slimmer and showed more leg. The women also wore spectacular jewelry; wide necklaces and headbands of cowrie shells, and rows of thick metal bracelets. Heavy anklets with large bells on them jingled on their ankles as they walked. Some women wore thick metal collar necklaces, and many wore two or even three of these big chokers. Apparently, a first wife had one collar, a second wife had two, and so on. A Hamer man is allowed to have up to four wives, as long as he can afford them.

Most of the women wore Western tee shirts, but these were rolled and tied tightly just below their breasts, leaving their backs exposed. The tee shirts looked quite out of place, and I wondered about them, until I realized what was about to happen, and then I understood why the girls had donned them on this day.

Our guide explained it to me. For the first part of the ceremony, before the party actually arrived at the bull jumping place, the young man was involved in a private preparation ritual, which was conducted by a male elder or shaman. While this was happening, it was the time for the women of the family to assume their customary role. Their job was to prove their love for the young man who was about to jump, and they proved it by demonstrating their willingness to accept pain on his behalf. At one side of the clearing, there was a group of young men who had already successfully jumped the bulls during the same year. They wore distinctive headdresses, with feathers that stuck up in the air. These men were all given long switches made from young, flexible tree branches. The women approached them, singing, dancing, and blowing brass horns or cow’s horns. The women clearly taunted them. I had no ability to understand their spoken language, but their body language made their meaning crystal clear. Their words must have meant something like this: “Come on, I want you to hit me, and hit me hard – Don’t be a coward.” The young man would respond by hitting the woman fiercely with his switch. The woman would taunt him again, telling him he hit like a girl. Angered, he would whip his branch harder across her back.

Most of these blows sounded like the snapping of a real horsewhip. They raised six to eight inch welts across the woman’s back, and the welts often drew blood. I saw women with eight to ten bleeding switch marks on their backs, overlapping other rows of old scars. I watched women approach the men, demanding more from them, when each blow was raining down on flesh that was already torn open and raw. I could see, now, that the tee shirts were there to protect their breasts from being torn open from glancing blows. As it was, blood flowed freely, dripping down their lower backs.

There were about fifteen tourists gathered at this event. The female tourists were strongly affected by this brutal display, and they would flinch and cringe with each crack of the switches. Not so the Hamar women. I studied their faces as the whipping continued. I never saw one flinch. I never even saw one blink or gasp, or even acknowledge the blow at all, even when the whipmark crossed a freshly opened wound. They just kept smiling and heckling the men. Their bravery was stunning. Our guide told me that they were all pretty drunk, which must have helped –although not drunk enough to stumble or look intoxicated. I wondered if they had also discovered some sort of plant that could ease their pain. If they had, the ladies kept it a secret. Our guide, who was Hamar, and was going to jump the bulls himself that year, had no knowledge of any medication.

At last, the whipping event was over, and the clans hiked a short distance down the road to the jumping area. We trekked alongside. I walked with one group of Hamar women. They were all bleeding, but they paid no attention to their injuries. They were in a festive mood; talking and laughing and blowing their horns enthusiastically. One of the women was, in my opinion, the bravest of them all. She was a beautiful, mature woman of about thirty five, who had gone back time and time again to face the whip. I deliberately caught her eye, and attempted to communicate my respect for her. I smiled at her, pointed at her, pointed at my own flexed bicep, and pointed back at her. She got what I was saying, and flashed me a fabulous smile of understanding.

Dave walked behind the ladies, in order to document the welts and the bleeding on his camera. The ladies didn’t seem to mind being photographed at all – they were proud of their battle scars. Some of their backs showed plenty of evidence of past bull jumping events as well. Dave shook his head and couldn’t resist remarking as to how, here in the West, the girls make such a big deal about having to wear ugly bridesmaids’ dresses…

The main event took place on a sandy clearing among the thorn trees. The Hamar had driven a large herd of bulls into this clearing, and they were circling around them, driving them closer and closer together. At this point, the owners of the animals grabbed each bull by the ears, while others pulled their tails. Eventually, each bull was held so that it couldn’t move without causing itself considerable distress. They were held, side by side, in a long line; about fifteen bulls in all. These bulls were of the Bhramin variety, and they are much more placid animals than most Western breeds. (Although not always – I have been chased by them before). (Read my story “The Running of the Bulls in Veranasi.” I barely escaped several sets of lowered horns.) The Hamar are expert herdsmen, and they certainly accomplished this remarkable task efficiently, but I’m sure there is risk involved.

When the bulls got in line, the young man was ready to jump. His task was to jump from the ground to the back of the first bull, and run, barefoot, across the backs of all the bulls in the line, and to do this without falling, until he had jumped them all. He had to do this three times. If he succeeded, he would be considered a man, and he would join the ranks of eligible bachelors. If he failed, he would be shamed before the tribe.

Needless to say, the young man looked extremely nervous. He was stark naked, with all of the tribe watching, and the tourist paparazzi snapping pictures of him as if he was a rock star. His manhood and pride depended on these next five minutes. The pressure on him was tremendous. Everybody held their breath as he made a test run, turning aside at the last second. The next run started well, and he got enough momentum to land on the bull’s bony back, feet flying, as he scrambled from one to the next, trying desperately to keep his balance. At last, he was all the way over.

This young man made it – he got in three good runs. There was a huge collective sigh or relief from the whole crowd. I’m sure the ladies felt it the most, since they would have had to undergo another whipping in six months as the young man tried again. The tribe happily left the jumping ground, off to celebrate at their village with a whole day of feasting.

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely yours, Diana


Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive

and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!


I welcome your comments, suggestions (corrections!) My email is: email@tradewindsvt.com.




Thanks for reading!

Sincerely yours, Diana


Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive

and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!


I welcome your comments, suggestions (corrections!) My email is: email@tradewindsvt.com.




Thanks for reading!

Sincerely yours, Diana


Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive

and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!


I welcome your comments, suggestions (corrections!) My email is: email@tradewindsvt.com.